Wyoming Bighorn Reintroduction Brings Public-Land Issues to a Head

by Braxton Taylor

In Wyoming, the battle over a bighorn sheep reintroduction is coming to a head in Sweetwater Rocks, a rugged mountain outcrop nestled between Rawlins and Lander. In part a Wilderness Study Area, Sweetwater is a small, isolated swath of hills dominated by rock formations and sagebrush flats. It’s the kind of landscape that screams “sheep country,” but the animals are mysteriously absent—and have been for over a century now.

The Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation (WY-WSF) is now leading the charge to reintroduce sheep to Sweetwater Rocks, but their campaign is bringing deep-seated local political issues to the surface.

According to Katie Cheesbrough, director of WY-WSF, “There’s a lot of mistrust between ag producers and the federal agencies in the area.” Currently, there are 18 sheep-grazing allotments in the Sweetwater Rocks area, and of those, only 8 have been assessed by the BLM in the last three decades (according to data from 1997-2019). Half of them had rangeland health violations. A main concern of landowners in the region is that a sheep reintroduction will add another challenge to their agricultural operations and could bring added scrutiny to their grazing practices in the area.

“You can’t ranch on state and federal lands without the oversight of the state and federal land managers,” Matt Hoobler, a director with WY-WSF, said. Prior to his work with WY-WSF, Hoobler was the director of operations for Pathfinder Ranches—a huge private landowner in the Sweetwater Rocks region. That’s to say, he’s familiar with all sides of the issue.

“If we’ve learned anything since the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, it’s that rangeland and soil health are critical for providing good pasture for livestock and forage for wildlife,” Hoobler said. “If there are rangeland health issues within the allotments, let’s deal with that issue aside from wild-sheep reintroduction.”

Essentially, local ranchers are worried that the spotlight of a sheep reintroduction would reveal their range-management practices and force them to change what they’ve been doing for generations. Hoobler also said there’s a degree of local resentment against two of the largest private landowners in the region: Pathfinder and Split Rock ranches.

Both ranches are owned by corporations, as opposed to neighboring family ranches, and both have been strong advocates for sheep reintroduction. In one sense, many local ag producers view the reintroductions as an issue of defending the traditional family ranch, rather than a matter of biology and survival for a species already in decline in Wyoming.

“Regardless, all wildlife benefits from the open space provided by ranches in Wyoming,” Hoobler said. “Being pro-wild sheep doesn’t mean you’re inherently anti-agriculture.”

Also in opposition to the project are the Wyoming Wool Growers and Wyoming Stock Growers associations. In their 2022 policies and directives handbook, the former clearly states that they “oppose the introduction of Rocky Mountain or Desert Bighorn sheep into areas where domestic sheep and goat grazing occurs.” The Stock Growers are even more explicit, stating flat-out that they oppose the introduction of bighorn sheep in Sweetwater Rocks.

The associations’ main concerns are that disease (specifically pneumonia) from wild sheep could infect domestic stocks in the area, even though the 73,101-acre reintroduction area has zero overlap with domestic sheep grazing allotments. And, according to a University of Wyoming reintroduction feasibility study, there’s a predicted annual wild-domestic sheep contact of 0.03 sheep per year in the entire region for a population of 50 animals—next to nothing, for all intents and purposes.

Adding to the challenge, the associations are part of a statewide bighorn sheep working group (of which the WY-WSF is also a member), yet they refuse to come to the table in a cooperative manner. At a recent December meeting, they demanded legal, monetary assurances that a reintroduction would have no impact on their public-land grazing leases—a position that fully ignores the slew of other purposes public land can be used for, aside from grazing. (It’s also worth noting that the proposed reintroduction area is primarily public land, with a breakdown of 68% BLM, 6% State of Wyoming, and 26% private).

“It really does feel like a way to put us in a stalemate,” Cheesbrough said. For parties that are legally required to be at the table together, working toward a compromise, it’s a tricky situation—and the Wool Growers don’t appear to be seeking resolution.

In a recent statement they wrote, “The Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation has decided to mount a public pressure campaign designed at getting the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission to approve the transplant proposal over the concerns of other members of the [working group], area landowners, and livestock producers in the region.”

Hoobler, however, views the campaign as one against misinformation. “We’re getting information out as best we can to the public, decision makers, and influencers in the political scheme of Wyoming,” he said. “Show me a better place that wild sheep belong in Wyoming.”

In the meantime, the WY-WSF, alongside Pathfinder and Split Rock ranches, plan to continue their advocacy for Sweetwater sheep reintroductions. Ultimately, however, it will be up to the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission to make the final decision.

Note: Neither the Wool Growers nor Stock Growers responded to comment for this article.

Read the full article here

You may also like

Leave a Comment